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On budget, Blanco talks one game, plays another

Does it ever stop with the Gov. Kathleen Blanco Administration, this trying to explain away its obvious love of big government and politics as usual? The day after state Treasurer John Kennedy criticized in a speech her spending priorities, Commissioner of Administration Jerry Luke LeBlanc felt compelled and/or ordered to respond – weakly and ineffectually.

“When the revenue picture wasn't as bad as predicted, we didn't go back to the way things were in terms of spending,” LeBlanc claimed, directly contradicting reality as observed by the biggest source of revenue for the state’s biggest area of expenditure, the federal government in health care. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt sternly warned that Louisiana was going to have to change its ways of doing health care, hinting federal dollars might not be forthcoming unless it happened, and as a result a chastened Blanco announced yet another panel to address the system as a result.

Leavitt probably said that because the 2006 budget showed little real changes at all in terms of health care spending priorities. To use just one example, an incredibly easy fix that could have happened, the state spends about $100 million more per year than it has to simply because it over-allocates Medicaid money to nursing homes instead of using resources to fund less expensive and probably more effective community-based care. In fact, the state went backwards in the Legislature by making it harder to change the formula that sends too much money to nursing homes by enshrining it into law this session. Blanco was MIA in shaping this policy.

LeBlanc also tries to buttress this claim by giving his version of where “new” revenues were spent. He chose some revealing categories. One was a pay raise to teachers that did not ask for any accountability and, given typical performance in the state, was undeserved. (The proper way to do it would be to institute teacher testing throughout the state, and then apportion raises based upon performance on this test and in the classroom.) Another was to “rescue” the higher education system when in fact its problems are not monetary, but structural; simply, the state has too many senior colleges and in the wrong places, especially in light of the hurricane disasters (why rebuild duplicative Southern University – New Orleans at all)?

But what LeBlanc failed to explain is that so much of the budget was built upon-one time federal money, based upon questionable assumptions. Certain revenues booms in the state have occurred precisely because of all the one-time money being pumped into the state economy, yet indefinite spending has been authorized such as the raises. Blanco simply shut her eyes to this, knowing her reelection opportunity was next year while the consequences of her actions may not become obvious until afterwards.

LeBlanc also tried to defend against the most cutting argument of Kennedy’s, that the budget contained much too much pork-barrel spending. His clever response: “one person's pork may be critical to someone else,” and cited as an example a program that provides hunting events for the disabled. Personally, I’m certainly glad the organization wants to provide an event.

But why does the state have to help pay for it? And if LeBlanc really were serious about helping the disabled in the state, that money would have been allocated, for example, to the New Opportunities Waiver program, designed to provide basic care for the severely disabled, which still has over 11,000 slots still unfunded. If this is an example of how Blanco and LeBlanc create “priorities” in the budget process, it demonstrates that politics and publicity are their main criteria, not actual need.

However, “pork” is not a problem anyway, LeBlanc claims, since the governor has instituted procedures “that ensure accountability for the people's money.” Of course, LeBlanc and Blanco have missed the entire point. I’d love it if next year I could con a state legislator into slipping into the budget the state giving me some money, and I’d be happy to fill out all the reports it wants telling it what I did with it. But, that does nothing at all to gauge how necessary the purpose of spending that money was to the welfare of the state.

The point is, LeBlanc and his employer Blanco have done nothing to institute any system of intelligent priority creation in the spending of this money. While that is something the appropriating authority the Legislature ought to do itself, as governor Blanco has the authority and responsibility to rid the budget of items simply not worthy of being there. She has utterly failed to do anything of the sort (in fact, using political criteria there as well), and now LeBlanc is desperately trying to obscure this fact.

LeBlanc can talk until he’s blue in the face but nothing he has said to date changes the salient facts: the Blanco Administration is not serious about fiscal policy change in this state, it sanctions the use of taxpayers dollars for political purposes far removed from the real needs of the state, what priorities it has are geared more towards satisfying certain political constituencies and enhancing Blanco’s reelection chances than these real needs, and it has no intentions, save federal or electoral pressures, of altering this behavior. LeBlanc needs to understand that the people of this state expect actions, not words, if this administration genuinely is to bring real fiscal benefits to Louisiana.

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